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To Serve Twin Needs, White House Unveils a China Accord

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Bush White House has adopted a two-china policy.

Laura Bush unveiled not one but two new sets of china yesterday: one a traditional Lenox gilt-edged formal style with a green basket-weave border. The other, the Magnolia Residence China Service designed by Hungarian-born Anna Weatherley of Arlington, is a first in the history of White House china: a less formal pattern created to be used in the private quarters.

You could call the hand-painted magnolia blossom pattern the presidential version of "casual" china, although the 75 seven-piece porcelain place settings, purchased with private funds by the White House Historical Association, cost $74,000. Instead of featuring the imposing gold eagles of the formal set, some pieces in the informal set are intricately decorated with butterflies, dragonflies and cute little bugs inspired by species indigenous to the White House grounds.

The first lady gathered a small group of reporters in the Family Dining Room, adjacent to the State Dining Room, to preview the china and two new custom rugs, which she called "the last acquisitions to the White House collection made during President Bush's term." She had been hoping to have everything ready earlier in her husband's presidency, but like many who redecorate, she had to wait. "These have been in the works for several years, and it took longer than we thought," she said.

White House china is displayed in many rooms of the house, and the designs and shapes reflect the style and food in vogue through 200 years of presidential families. There are the French porcelain oyster plates and bonbon stands of the Rutherford B. Hayes administration and the cocktail cups and oatmeal bowls of Woodrow Wilson.

"The china shows the taste of the day. It records history," White House social secretary Amy Zantzinger said.

The frequent entertaining at the White House takes its toll on the china, and breakage depletes the numbers over the years.

"Right now, we only have two complete sets of china we can use for a state dinner for 134: the Reagan and the Clinton services," Zantzinger said.

Mrs. Bush explained that up to now, presidential families have used the formal state services for their meals and entertaining in the upstairs private quarters. She said that she most frequently used the red Reagan china but that her husband is partial to the Johnson service, which Lady Bird Johnson designed to depict wildflowers from throughout the country. Now, Bush said, future first families will have the option of using the "more informal" set for lunches and small dinners.

The official George W. Bush State China Service (total price tag: $492,798) consists of 320 14-piece place settings bought with privately raised money through the White House Historical Association Acquisition Trust. The design was inspired by a French dinner service believed to have been owned by James and Dolley Madison. The eagle motif is taken from an inlay on a Massachusetts sideboard in the White House collection said to have been owned by Daniel Webster.

Mrs. Bush said the green color of the china was selected in part to differentiate it from what is already in the collection -- the Reagan red and the Clinton gold china -- but also because it would work with many colors of flowers and linens and would be good for Christmas.

The Weatherley china was made in America by Pickard China of Illinois, but it was hand-painted by Weatherley's artisans in Budapest. "It is a great honor for me to be a Hungarian immigrant and do something like this," Weatherley said. The theme was taken from the White House magnolia, which is thought to be the oldest tree on the lawn and dates to the time of Andrew Jackson.

Weatherley, who has been creating china in Hungary for 18 years, sells her patterns through stores such as Neiman Marcus. And she once had her hand-painted china appear in an episode of HBO's "Sex and the City." (Charlotte was shopping for it at Bergdorf Goodman when she was presented with her prenuptial agreement.)

The new rugs, also paid for by the White House Historical Association, were made by Mountain Rug Mills in North Carolina. The yellow-and-green Family Dining Room rug incorporates decorative elements from the French marble mantel in the room. The Diplomatic Reception Room rug has emblems from the flags of all the states and a large eagle in the center framed by sunbursts.

The debut of the Bush china occurred at a small luncheon this week for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Have the Obamas seen their new dinner plates? "No, they haven't," Mrs. Bush said. She said she was able to show Michelle Obama the family dining room upstairs when she gave her a post-election tour of the White House. "She at least knows where the china closet is."

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